How To Create Drum Loops That Sound Acoustic
I don't quite remember when I made my first loop. I think it was for some long forgotten horror film in the mid-to-late '80s. It may still be around on a 3.5" floppy in a dusty case, but I digress. We're here to discuss ways to create acoustic-sounding drum loops, but keep in mind that this is only how I create them. Your methods will be determined by the hardware and software you have, and the style of music in which the loops will be used.
Much of today's popular music uses drum loops. It might be a loop a composer uses as inspiration while writing a song or a loop used in the final production. Either way, loop "content creation" has become a way to earn a living, and another part of what we are expected to do as working drummers. If you're looking for a new profit source, it can pay to spend some time behind the computer working on your mouse chops.
Creating loops is not that complicated. It's important to listen to a lot of music that uses loops, which is almost every kind of popular music out there these days. This will help you develop an ear for how loops are used, and the kind of sounds that are currently in vogue. At times, it's hard to distinguish what combination of sounds you hear. You might hear a loop, programmed drums, electronic drums, acoustic drums, or some combination of all the above. But have faith. Eventually you'll develop the ability to dissect all the different parts. If you have friends or acquaintances that are currently using loops in their live or recorded music, pick their brains, hang out, and learn as much as you can. Practical, "real life" experience is priceless.
One of your keys to success is to know the tools at your disposal. This means in addition to keeping up your subscription to DRUM!, you should pick up and read the likes of Keyboard and Electronic Musician. Although not geared specifically towards drummers, these magazines are full of ads and articles that show the hardware, software, and techniques that are available and happening. Another source of information is in the pro audio and keyboard departments of the your local music stores. Stop playing the V-Drums for a few minutes, walk out of the drum department, take a stroll through these other departments and check what's on the shelves. It's another world out there.
Big Things to Consider
The first is the client's needs. Do they need a one bar loop, a two bar loop, or a loop set of 12 parts? Also consider how the end result will be used – is it for live performance, a song demo, a CD project, or a jingle? The answers to these questions put me into a particular work mode. For instance, a jingle will probably have a limited budget when compared to a union record session. A bigger budget means there will most likely be more time to spend on the needed loops. I've seen fairly big budget record sessions spend a day on one two-bar loop. On the other side of the coin, I've walked into jingle sessions and walked out ten minutes later, finished. Most often the client will have recorded examples of what they think they want. This is especially true on jingles, as jingles have a "temp" track of music the producer likes and has fallen in love with, but doesn't want to, or can't afford to license.
The second consideration is a musical one. What style do the loops need to be? They could be some kind of techno thing, open alternative slosh, or who knows what. You have to be prepared to deal with any eventuality. In my L.A. studio days there was more than one time that I told the contractor I had an instrument I didn't even know existed, let alone owned. Such is life. Take some chances, but be prepared for anything!
The third deals with the technical side. What is the recording format? Could be anything from standalone hard disk recorder, to 2" tape. This is important because giving them the most killing loop set in an incompatible format will make extra work for them, and they hired you to make their life easier. Ask what format they're working in. Is it Roland's VS-Series hard disk recorders, computer-based hard disk recording such as Digidesign's ProTools or MotU's Digital Performer, or tape? They may be working in some or all of these formats. Then there are the parameters that make the budding loop maker shake with fear and bite the end of their pencil – sound format, sample rate, and bit depth. Have no fear; I'll cover all of that later in the article.
Although sometimes uncomfortable, a discussion about dead presidents has to take place. You know, the ones on the big-head green bills. After finding out what you think will be involved with the loop project, discuss the compensation (or lack thereof) with the client. This sidesteps misunderstandings and potential hard feelings later. Although making money right from the beginning would be great, I'd encourage you to get your feet wet in the digital realm by doing any projects that come your way, even if they don't pay. It's better to make mistakes on these projects than your "big break." Look at these opportunities as your real life schooling.
Things to Think of While Looping
You've done your homework, know what the client wants, and are back at your studio. Take inventory to see if there are any sounds or gear that you don't have. Friends are always ready to help with gear, sounds, or expertise. Once you have everything together, you're ready to work without distractions. Determine if the loops will be all MIDI instruments, all acoustic, or some combination of the two. Start creating. Not everything you produce will end up in the client's hands, but keep this work anyway – it might be usable at a later date.
Once you're done with the loops, don't run off and deliver the final mixes (unless you're up against a deadline). Listen to them the next day. Play them on different stereos, including car stereos and boom boxes. I worked with a recording engineer in L.A. who didn't let a mix go until he heard it in his '84 four-door Honda Accord.
Always double-check the loop delivery format. While sample rate can be often messed up, it's more likely to make a mistake on bit depth (don't worry, we're just about to talk about these things).
Sound File Format
This is perhaps the largest source of problems for newcomers to digital audio. Quite frankly, it can be a stumbling block for us veterans, too. My occasional problems stem from miscommunication, but most newcomers will find that their problems come from not having experience and knowledge of all the different sound file formats out there. Ask the client what format they need the loops in (heck, they might not know). If they don't know, ask the engineer/sound guy, or find out what recording platform they're recording or playing them back on – this will give clues. Audio sound files are recognized with a three- or four-digit suffix (.xxx) after the file name.